Making social science accessible

07 Mar 2018

Politics and Society

UK-EU Relations

There’s a new kid on the Brexit block. Briefings for Brexit (BfB) is a pro-Brexit website that aims to provide “factual evidence and reasoned arguments” in favour of a “full and positive Brexit”. What distinguishes it from other pro-Brexit outlets is the fact that its contributors – dubbed “Brainy Brits” by The Times – consist mainly of academics.

BFB has some admirable aims. Among them is an ambition to “encourage debate and discussion” by providing information that is clear and simple – something we at The UK in a Changing Europe also pride ourselves on.

Unlike us, however, BfB is guided by a pro-Brexit world view to which, ultimately, the evidence must yield.

On immigration, for example, BfB argues that the population is reaching “unsustainable levels”, but it makes this case by “setting aside economic arguments”. Why any analysis, let alone that which is academically-led, would wish to exclude relevant evidence is something of a mystery.

Economics cannot be removed from immigration and its impact. Certainly not if the aim is to inform the public about the pros and cons of migration.

 BfB’s mission statement sets out some of the claims made by Leavers as to how the referendum result and its aftermath have been presented and are perceived. Some are spot on. Others, however, at worst border on conspiracy theory.

Let’s take the first contention:

“It has even become quite commonplace to associate support for Brexit with low levels of…intellect”

If you are a Remain voter, you quite possibly do think that Leave voters are stupid. But this does not just apply to the Remain camp.

Sara Hobolt, Thomas Leeper and James Tilley recently found that the referendum has polarised our society and generated significant animosity between Leavers and Remainers. Both sides associated positive adjectives (honest, intelligent, open-minded) with their own side and negative ones (hypocritical, selfish, closed-minded) with the other.

Among Remainers, just 12 per cent thought Leavers were intelligent, whereas 66 per cent thought Remainers were. Similarly, among Leavers only 25 per cent thought Remainers were intelligent, but 61 per cent thought Leavers were. Remain voters were less likely to think Leave voters were intelligent than vice versa, but, frankly, neither side thinks well of the other.

Let’s consider education, which brings us to the second contention:

“It has even become quite commonplace to associate support for Brexit with low levels of education”

Do Leave voters have lower levels of education? Generally, yes. Education was a reliable predictor of which way people voted in the referendum. Associating support for Brexit with lower levels of education merely reflects what the surveys tell us was the case. This is not completely reliable of course. We shouldn’t forget that a third of people who voted to Leave had a degree or higher, just as about a third of those who voted Remain had no qualifications.

The problem here is thinking those without degrees are stupid, which is clearly nonsense. More likely, those without degrees had a different set of interests and priorities to those with them, which determined the way they voted. Their votes were equally logical and rational, but their interests and priorities differed.

So what of the media’s role in all of this? Here’s contention number three:

“There is a prevailing media view that all sensible and informed people oppose Brexit.”

The problem here is the suggestion that the media speak with one voice. This clearly isn’t the case.

Taking the main newspapers’ monthly circulation in January, there were about 3.6m readers of Leave-leaning papers compared with about 2.3m of Remain-leaning ones. Similarly, online there were about 19m visits to Leave-leaning sites and 15.1m to Remain-leaning ones.

It’s unclear how important the media is in determining people’s views, but certainly news journalism doesn’t have an anti-Brexit bias.

There are plenty of outlets where both sides can air their views. This might be why you often hear both sides claiming bias. Take Andrew Adonis on the Remain side, who calls the BBC the Brexit Broadcasting Corporation. On the other side, the free-market Institute for Economic Affairs reports a bias against Leave supporters on the BBC’s Question Time and Any Questions.

Like the BBC, other major TV companies such as ITV, Channel 4 and Sky have a broadly neutral policy, although no doubt face similar accusations. All are subject to Ofcom oversight, which insists that “news, in whatever form, is reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality.”

To reach the conclusion of bias hedges far too close to conspiracy theory for comfort.

Is it reasonable, then, to conclude as BfB does that “Groupthink and intellectual consensus characterizes the current debate around Brexit”? If it has settled in the Cabinet – the most influential of all places in the debate – we certainly haven’t noticed.

If it has broken out in Parliament, we must have been looking the other way. And a quick glance at the news headlines and opinion polling on any given day will tell you all you need to know about public and media views.

If this is groupthink, it has a funny way of looking like near-complete division.

Beyond all this, the arrival of a new pro-Brexit academic group is a welcome addition to the debate. No-one, regardless of their Brexit persuasion, should be worried about opposing arguments being aired. Ideas should be contested, not supressed.

By Matt Bevington, research assistant at The UK in a Changing Europe.This piece originally featured in the New Statesman.


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